How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

There once was a guy named Jesus.  He sounded like a pretty cool guy if you believed some of the savings he was supposed to have said.  Then his followers made him into God, and people became more interested in what was said about him, rather than what he said.  That’s too bad.  Bart D. Ehrman, has written a book that explains how Jesus became God after he died, and then became God while he was alive, and then became God before he was born, and then became God before any of us were born.  Ehrman’s book could have also been called When Jesus Became God, and to a very minor degree, it could have been called Why Jesus Became God.

I would have entitled it, Too Bad Jesus Became God.

How Jesus Became God

How Jesus Became God is a history book.  It’s not about theology, but many readers will find it undermines their beliefs.  To be fair, Ehrman bends over backwards, constantly explaining how and why he’s writing history, wanting to avoiding any theological implications.  We’ll never know the theological truth in this life, but we can get ever closer to the historical truth.  By summarizing how the followers of Jesus changed their opinions about the man they worshipped in the decades and early centuries after his death, we don’t learn anything new about Jesus, but a whole lot about the history of Christianity.  Because Jesus left no primary sources about what he believed, we can never know anything about the man, all we can know is what other people thought about him long after he died.

I’m afraid when the faithful read this book they will bring their beliefs to the reading and that will distort what Ehrman has to say.  Ehrman  stands outside of Christian faith and ask the question:  How did Jesus become God?  He is a historian, so he makes no assumption whether Jesus is actually God or not, but analyzes what we know about early Christians to decide how they made Jesus into a God.  Ehrman uses textual analysis to date each idea about Jesus that emerged after his death, and to pick through the paltry facts like a CSI detective hoping to find additional clues.  Ehrman tries to answer two main questions.  First, did Jesus think of himself as God or divine?  Second, studying the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts, Ehrman asks, when did his believers think Jesus became God – at his resurrection, his Baptism, his conception, or from the beginning of all time?

Bart D. Ehrman introduces his book at Huffington Post.  It’s a good summary to read if you’re thinking about buying the book.  He opens with:

Jesus was a lower-class preacher from Galilee, who, in good apocalyptic fashion, proclaimed that the end of history as he knew it was going to come to a crashing end, within his own generation. God was soon to intervene in the course of worldly affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a utopian kingdom on earth. And he would be the king.

It didn’t happen. Instead of being involved with the destruction of God’s enemies, Jesus was unceremoniously crushed by them: arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and publicly executed.  And yet, remarkably, soon afterwards his followers began to say that — despite all evidence to the contrary — Jesus really was the messiah sent from God. More than that, he was actually a divine being, not a mere human. And not just any divine being. He was the Creator of the universe. After long debates among themselves they decided that he was not secondary to the one God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty himself. On the contrary, he was fully equal with God; he had always existed for eternity with God; he was of the same essence as God; he was a member of the Trinity.

How did that happen? How did we get from a Jewish apocalyptic preacher — who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for his efforts — to the Creator of all things and All-powerful Lord? How did Jesus become God?

To Christians, Jesus is God, but to historians, Jesus is no different from any human in history.  Ehrman is studying the theologians and not the theology.  If you are willing to take How Jesus Became God as a purely history book it’s quite fascinating and illuminating about the early development of Western civilization.  If you are a believer, this book could be painful because it treats Christianity no different from pagan mythology that also existed in the first centuries of the common era.

I hope this won’t be insulting to Christians, but most of the ones I know aren’t very intellectual about their theology.  Most, just want to believe in God, an afterlife, heaven, and the promise they will meet their dead kin and friends again.  How that happens is inconsequential to them.  That’s why modern Christianity is based on faith and belief.  Reading How Jesus Became God will show there is a complex history of theology to how belief in believing evolved.  Ehrman makes an excellent case that while Jesus was alive, and even just after he died, Christians believed you had to do good deeds to get into heaven, and that Jesus did not think of himself as divine.  It took decades, centuries even, to evolve the theology that Jesus was Christ who existed since the beginning of time as God and believing in him will earn you eternal life in heaven.

This book is about how the followers of Jesus went from thinking of Jesus as a human being to thinking of him as the Trinity.  Ehrman documents this from what we know from history.  Unfortunately, most of what we know comes from The New Testament, Apocrypha writings, and Gnostic texts.  Ehrman’s history is really close textual readings because we have few outside sources about these events.  Christians might appreciate Ehrman’s careful delineations between the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts.  What it comes down to is Paul, and the writers of the four gospels had different ideas on when Jesus became God – resurrection, Baptism, conception or the beginning of time.  Then the early church fathers argued over these concepts for centuries.

That might seem like meaningless quibbling to most believers, but it does explain why the four Gospels differ.  The Gospel of Mark doesn’t include the story of the virgin birth, but that’s because it suggests that Jesus became divine at the resurrection.  The writers of Matthew and Luke seem to imply Jesus became divine at Baptism or conception.  To have Jesus become divine at conception you need the virgin birth tale.  The author of John recreates the ontology of Genesis to put Jesus as God back at the beginning of time.

Now I’m an atheist, but I find all of this fascinating.  And I might have a different take on Ehrman’s book, but since I’m not widely read in Christian history, I don’t know how common my questions are.  Jesus and his disciples were lower class folk, who were probably illiterate and spoke Aramaic and Hebrew.  The writers of the Gospels were educated, literate, and spoke and wrote Greek.  I’m wondering if they knew about Greek philosophy and if their theology is a mixture of Hebrew mythology, stories about Jesus, and Greek philosophy.  Is The New Testament a cold front of religion meeting the warm front of philosophy?

By the way, we’re leaving Ehrman and moving into my own ideas.  I’m into science, but science wasn’t invented yet.  At the time of evolution of The New Testament people had very few tools to understand reality.  The first, and oldest tool is religion.  Religion basically says “God did it” to any question about the mystery of reality.  Why is there thunder?  It’s a god.  How did the universe start?  God created it.  In terms of understanding the truth, religion offers no validity or real answers.  It’s all speculation and wild ideas.

Then came philosophy.  Philosophy assumes humans can figure out how things work.  Philosophy starts observing reality for clues, but all too often it comes up with bizarre theories for answers, and eventually these are contrived into elaborate beliefs.  Because philosophy uses logic and rhetoric, it gives the impression that it’s intellectually superior to religion, even though most of its answers about reality are hardly better than religion.  However, logic is sexy, so believers prefer philosophical answers over the dictates of religion, which is basically, “God did it.”  Paul is the Plato of Christianity, and Jesus is his Socrates.  And the guy who wrote The Gospel of John is out there, way out there, both mystical and philosophical, like one of the Pythagoreans.

From my perspective, Paul is the real creator of Christianity, but he lost control of his religion to the later writers of The New Testament.  What Ehrman’s book does is try to chronicle how these later writers change the scope of Christian theology.  Even more fascinating is the Gnostic gospels, which appear to try to take Christianity in even stranger directions.  What became Orthodox Christianity in the first four centuries of the common era is what worked best at selling a belief that took hold of the Western world for the next sixteen centuries.

Modern day believers of Christianity believe because they hear a few ideas in childhood that are so powerful it overwhelms all their thinking.  What Ehrman’s book attempts to do is explain how these memes got created.  Many other writers of Christian history attempt to do this too, but Ehrman seems to be particularly good at it, with clear writing, sensible logic and a humble attitude.  Ehrman has written a series of books that reflect a lifetime of careful research that explain how and why The New Testament was written.  He’s very knowledgeable about The Old Testament, but The New Testament is his specialty, his life’s work.

Most Christians aren’t interested in an intellectual history of their faith.  Their religion gives them a wonderful sense of community, beliefs that comfort them in life, and faith that assures them they won’t die, so they know they will meet their departed loved ones in the next life.  However, there are Christians, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists who are profoundly interested in the intellectually validity of their beliefs and will go to extremes to validate their faith.  Ehrman’s book will cause these people problems.  This gets back to my point about philosophy.  Philosophy appears to reveal the truth, but it doesn’t.  Science is the only system we’ve invented yet that reveals consistencies in reality that we can accept as being true.  What we’re experiencing now is the cold front of philosophy banging into the warm front of science.

What Ehrman brings to the table is history, a discipline that is far more consistent than philosophy, but still not science.  The fundamental faithful are strong adherents of philosophy, which includes rhetoric and logic.  They are confident these tools reveal the truth of reality.  But science is showing them that their philosophy is a very poor tool for understanding the truth of this reality.

What Ehrman has accidently taught me is fundamentalists love philosophy because The New Testament is a product of philosophy, and not religion.  The Old Testament was pure religion.  The New Testament is a hybrid of religion and philosophy, with the later writers of The New Testament being the most philosophical.

And it’s not that philosophy can’t be a useful tool, but it’s only useful if it incorporates the rigors of science.  Science depends on logic, and to a degree rhetoric, but is actually about consistency of observations.   Science, for the most part, can’t be used to verify theology, because most theology involves the metaphysical, which can’t be observed, tested, and is not falsifiable.

Christianity met up with Greek philosophy again when it kicked the Muslims out of Spain.  But that’s not part of Ehrman’s book.  I’ve always thought that was Christianity’s first encounter with Greek philosophy, but now I’m thinking different.  The New Testament writers were the first influence of Greek philosophers on Christianity, they just didn’t mention their educational background.

It would be fantastic to have a time machine and track down the real Jesus and give him a copy of The New Testament and How Jesus Became God.  I get the feeling he’d probably read them and say, “Hey, these stories are about a guy with my name,” and never notice they were about him.

I’m am reminded of stuff I’ve read by Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright, especially in A History of God and The Evolution of God.  The God of The Bible has gone though quite a lot of changes himself.  He’s a combination of several gods that slowly evolved over a very long period of time.  Each time one people would conquer another people, their gods would merge, or one would supplant the other.  To me, Jesus became God because Christianity supplanted older religions and had to incorporate or bury older deities, creeds, traditions, etc.  Jesus essentially becomes the new God that usurps the Jewish God of The Old Testament, in the same way Yahweh supplanted earlier gods like El, Asherah and Baal.

The early Christians had to do this to succeed and thrive, and boy did they thrive.  But it sure is sad that they lost Jesus along the way.  It would be interesting to compare the revisionists techniques in the Quran and The Book of Mormon to see how they try to supplant Christian theology.

I wish Jesus had written down his ideas like Plato.  To me, humans are interesting, gods are not.

JWH – 7/8/14

Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman

I believe The Bible can be a very dangerous book.  For most people The Bible is a book they read occasionally, and use it for inspiration to be a good person.  There are better books to teach ethics but we can overlook that like we can overlook casual drinking, a minor indulgence.  I use the drug metaphor very intentionally, because I believe The Bible alters people’s mind and how they see reality.  Because some people take The Bible too far, into cocaine, heroin and LSD levels of use, and they become addicted, deluded and cut themselves off from reality.

The Bible can be like a computer virus that infects the minds of those who read it.  This is true of any religious literature.  The Bible does not describe reality. The Bible can not predict the future.  And most important, The Bible does not describe God (if there is a creator), at best The Bible presents very ancient theories about God.  In terms of philosophical theology, it is very important to separate the concept of God from any description about God.  Holy books captures how people thought thousands of years ago and that’s a huge danger because people minds become paralyzed by seeking closure on mysteries that will never be solved.  It’s mental quicksand.

The reason why I call myself an atheist is because I’ve never heard a definition of God that I could accept.  If there is a God he is unknowable in the same way that a bacteria in our blood can never know who we are.  People want a personal God, and that’s understandable, because life is scary and we’d love to have a spiritual parent to protect us.  But that’s a dangerous desire because it causes people to avoid real sources of strength, other people and ourselves.

There are many reasons why people seek religion and embrace holy books:

  • They want answers about reality (knowledge)
  • They want to know how life began (ontology)
  • They want a history and genealogy
  • They want instructions on how to be a good person (ethics)
  • They want to worship and be thankful (appreciation of life)
  • They want rules for equal justice for all people (law and order)
  • They want to know the future (prophecy)
  • They want a promise of protection (security)
  • They want an afterlife 

The reason why holy books like The Bible are so dangerous and powerful is our minds are extremely powerful.  Holy books transmit powerful memes.  All books do, but holy books come with extra-strength memes.  The concept of God is a meme.  Once an idea is let lose in culture it’s very hard, if not impossible to erase.  What happens instead is people alter memes.  Think of a virus mutating.  If you study just The Bible you’ll actually come up with dozens, if not hundreds of meme variations for the original meme for God, which was created thousands of years before the Jews existed.  There is no one God in The Bible.  There is no one Jesus, which brings us to the book Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman.

Jesus-Interrupted

Many people divide the world into the secular and the divine.  Believers in divine knowledge think its more important than down to Earth knowledge.  That’s an illusion.  The divine is a meme too.  Beliefs are more powerful than reality.  In fact, all we have is beliefs.  What we want is to keep beliefs that validate reality and jettison fantasies, but religious beliefs can’t be validated, but how you got them can.  That’s what Bart D. Ehrman is doing in his writing.

For example, do you believe that Jesus is a divine being?  Who gave you that idea?  How old were you?  Why did you believe them?  Where did they get the idea?  What Ehrman is doing in Jesus, Interrupted is working on a cold case that goes back 1900 years.  Where did the origin of the meme that Jesus was divine come from?  He calls this research a historical approach to Bible study. 

Jesus, Interrupted is a significant book on many levels, but proving that will be difficult because what he says challenges people’s beliefs.  Bart D. Ehrman is most famous for his book Misquoting Jesus, but this newer book is even more exciting to read, that is, if you find history and academic research exciting.  Ehrman claims he is not trying to be sensational with his books on The Bible, and claims he is only relating what any mainstream seminary teaches.  Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He started out as an evangelical Christian but after many years of studying The Bible became an agnostic.  Since I’m an atheist, reviewing a book about The New Testament written by an agnostic will be hard to convince Christians the value of reading Jesus, Interrupted.

I don’t ever expect Christians to give up their faith.  I figure most will ignore this book, but I expect others will combine the knowledge that Ehrman provides with their faith and create a new synthesis.  Whether this leads to a new reformation is another issue, but in cruising around the net trying to find reactions to Ehrman I was surprise by some reactions of the faithful.  Some reviewers say Ehrman goes too far, others just dismiss him, but others have jumped in and started their own analysis using his historical approach to test and validate Ehrman’s ideas.

Ehrman says many times in his book that he has no wish to destroy anyone’s faith, but anyone with a deep faith in The Bible being the absolute word of God will be tested by Ehrman’s books.  Ehrman started out as a person believing God inspired The Bible and it had no errors, but his desire to study it deeply and thoroughly led him to believe that it is the work of men, chock full of errors, forgeries, and contradictions.  I think anyone examining the historical evidence will also conclude that men wrote The Bible without guidence from God.

The next logical step in theology is to ask how God might inspire men to write about the metaphysical.  I don’t believe in the divine, but most people do.  I expect them to keep looking for the doorway between the physical world and the spiritual world.  And that’s okay.  Religion is deeper than memes, and I expect humans to always invent new and better religions.  Some atheists want to throw off religion and God, but that’s like being a vegetarian wanting the rest of the world to give up eating meat.  Evolution is a nasty word to the righteous, but everything evolves.

So why should agnostics and atheists even concern themselves with this book?  Ehrman still believes The Bible is the greatest book ever written and still provides inspiration.  For me, I want to understand Christians and how they evolved in history.  Jesus, Interrupted is a quick survey of the first four hundred years of Christianity and how The New Testament was written.  I think it explains why we have hundreds of different Christian faiths, and it also explains part of the psychology of conservatives and liberals, something Ehrman wasn’t intending.

Ehrman says most people study The Bible devotionally, but for the last two hundred years scholars have applied a historical approach to understanding it.  Ehrman also says most people only read The Bible randomly, just studying a few lines here and there.  Even if you read it vertically, from top to bottom, Ehrman believes you will miss much of what’s in The Bible.  He recommends studying it horizontally, comparing one gospel against another, or how one incident is depicted by multiple writers.  Jesus, Interrupted focuses almost exclusively on The New Testament except where gospel writers claim events were foretold in The Old Testament.

When you study the gospels this way you quickly see they conflict.  And not in minor narrative details, but in great theological differences.  In fact, much of what Christians believe today does not come from The New Testament at all, but from later theologians.  What many Christians might be shocked at is the gospels were not written by the disciples that knew Jesus, but educated people writing decades later, living in another country, speaking a different language than what Jesus and his apostles spoke.

The reason why there are so many conflicting stories in The Bible is because it was written by many different people, each with their own agenda.  I cannot do justice to the vast research the Ehrman puts into his book, so don’t trust me, and read Jesus, Interrupted for yourself.  Then read reviews by people who oppose Ehrman, and there are plenty.  Interpreting The Bible is a academic black hole that I want to avoid, but I do think it’s possible to study The Bible without falling into its gravity well.

I think there will be many different audience reactions for this book.

  • Atheists will get a good overview of Christianity, but also find intellectual support that The Bible is not a divine communication to the human race.  If they have any residual guilt about religion from early Sunday School programming, this book will help deprogram those feelings.  I found the book a fascinating history, explaining much of Western culture in a surprising way.  It was a real page turner for me.
  • Liberal Christians will expand their theological foundation and maybe invent a new synthesis.  Ehrman explains how new theological concepts developed in the first few centuries of the common era shaped The New Testament, but Christian evolution did not stop there.  Christianity is always evolving and diverging, and modern Christianity has little resemblance to Jesus and his times.  I think Ehrman’s book should have been called The Evolution of Christ.  I think books like this, using historical studies to examine spiritual doctrine, will inspire some folks to invent new theological memes.
  • Conservative Christians can choose to ignore the book, or counter it.  I think Christians constantly redefine and reinvent God.  God is a mutating meme.  Creationism and Intelligent Design are fundamentalist adaptations to their philosophy from reacting to science.  I expect similar ideas generated from reacting to historical studies of The Bible.  Theological evolution does not have to be logical, for example, look at the doctrine of the Trinity.  Essentially, a monotheistic religion accidently reinventing polytheism while trying to rationalize how a human could be the one and only God.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of this theology – it’s a deadly serious pursuit by some folk to grapple with reality, but my point is religion doesn’t stand still, it’s constantly being reinvented to jive with current knowledge.
  • Believers from other religions will find a concise overview of The New Testament that might quickly explain the diversity of Christian faiths and sects.

Everyone feels like they are an expert on The Bible, even if they’ve only read a few passages.  I think the historical studies of The Bible will up the ante for anyone getting into the game.  Ehrman claims that most mainline ministers know what’s in this book already, but they seldom preach this knowledge to their parishioners.  I don’t know if that matters. 

Most people only want simple answers.  They are happy with a very few concepts to embrace.  There is a God.  There is a heaven.  Believing in Jesus is the way to heaven.  Period.  No more study.  This covers all the bases for this life and the next.  As long as these believers stay out of politics I don’t want to challenge their beliefs.  Don’t read this book. 

No use confusing the simple faithful by trying to explain that heaven is a theological invention that came well after Jesus.  Nor should we cloud the water by proving the God of Moses is not the God of Paul, even though some modern apocalyptical Christians want to bring back an Old Testament genocidal God.

Ehrman proves The Bible can be a black hole of academic study, but it’s also an endless engine that justifies hatred and intolerance.  Ehrman illustrates this with a quick lesson in how Christianity created anti-Semitism.  And I certainly wanted to read more about the development of the Orthodox Church at the expense of heretical sects.

Jesus, Interrupted is an important book beyond Bible studies because it explains so much modern psychology.  Rush Limbaugh is not just a conservative Republican, but an apostle of orthodoxy attacking the heretical liberals.  What Ehrman shows is Swift Boating a technique well illustrated in The New TestamentJesus, Interrupted unintentionally shows a relationship between the Bible belt and conservative thinking and behavior.  If someone like Lee Atwater had lived in the first century he might have written a gospel to get his point across.

Liberals who want to understand why conservatives are the way they are should study Jesus, Interrupted carefully.  I always assumed Republicans got their rhetorical skills from the Greeks, but that is only half-right, and they might have studied classical Greeks, but they also learned rhetoric from the Greek speaking writers of  the New Testament.            

JWH – 6/8/10